Boomtown Blues

For years, I’d wanted to visit Dubai and Shanghai, two cities where architects and developers operate unconstrained by anything except (occasionally) gravity. This year, I finally made it to both. In March, when I was in Dubai, one architect said, “It’s like I died and I’m already in heaven.” No kidding. I spent most of my time in Dubai visiting the big-ticket projects you’ve already read about. I went on a boat ride to one of the completed portions of Palm Jumeirah, the first in a cluster of manmade islands shaped into a palm tree, and saw a long, skinny spit of an island lined with rather conventional McMansions, villas in the local parlance. I visited the Burj Dubai showroom and took a simulated elevator ride to a stage-set version of the top of the world’s tallest building. But after a few days of nonstop development tourism, I found myself pondering Jane Jacobs. What would she make of all this? The question was harder to answer than it might seem. Clearly, she would hate much of the heedless tower mania. But the real answer would hinge on whether she regarded Dubai’s increasingly sophisticated approach to mixed-use place-making as an improvement over the sterile environments churned out by the urban planners of the 1960s.

I asked myself another question: What would Jane Jacobs do in Dubai? The answer to that one was easy. She would go for a walk. Looking out my hotel window, I’d noticed a lot of people trekking to work in the morning, streaming out of the low-rise neighborhood that was situated between a traffic-clogged swath of Sheikh Zayed Road and the Persian Gulf. And so, a bit before sunset on my last evening in town, I followed the homeward-bound pedestrians into Satwa, a vibrant working-class neighborhood, and wondered if this rare enclave of real life could weather the massive real estate boom mutating all around it.

After my return to New York, I received an e-mail about a new development called Jumeirah Gardens, a huge, upscale, master-planned community. Most of what I’d seen in Dubai had been built on open desert or land reclaimed from the sea, but this was a classic urban-renewal scheme, one calling for the demolition of Satwa. A number of accounts, none of them official, estimated that between 100,000 to 150,000 people would be displaced.

Time Out Dubai reported on the development in May: “‘These low-quality villas and the ­illegal inhabitants they house simply can not continue to exist so close to Trade Center, Sheikh Zayed Road and the heart of the city,’ our source confirms. ‘Not in such prime real estate.’” A more recent article in the Gulf News was accompanied by the kind of spectacular architectural renderings that are pro forma in Dubai, and it noted, “The development will redefine living in one of the most popular neighborhoods of Dubai, currently undergoing demolition to pave the way for the new project.” Redefine living in one of the most popular neighborhoods of Dubai? The plan for Jumeirah Gardens made me wish a Jane Jacobs could rise from Satwa.

And then there was Shanghai. In October I spent a few days in a hotel in Pudong, the district of jumbo office towers that began construction in the 1990s. I was taken on a whirlwind tour of the city’s architecture. One of the supposed highlights was Xintiandi, an enclave of preserved tenements converted to a shopping mall with the help of an American architect who drew his inspiration from Faneuil Hall. It struck me as strange that this was regarded as a premier example of preservation: it would be like taking a first-time visitor to New York to the South Street Seaport. But preservation of any sort, even the kind that turns authentic neighborhoods into malls, was the exception rather than the rule. Everywhere I went, new towers were rising and old low-rise neighborhoods were coming down. No sign of Jane here, either.

On the way to Shanghai, I stopped in Hong Kong, a city where real estate development is one of the main industries, and where the government derives much of its revenue from leasing property and selling development rights. There I caught up on the latest: another harbor scheme with more reclamation and a new waterfront highway, and still more massive luxury high-rises eating away at some of the city’s best-loved streetscapes.

Upon my return to New York, I walked straight into the opening day of a Skyscraper Museum–­sponsored conference titled “Hong Kong | New York: Vertical Density | Sustainable Solutions.” It was an outgrowth of an exhibition at the museum that celebrated Hong Kong as a “hyper New York”—this city’s visionary alter ego, with taller, more densely configured towers. The first day’s speakers were supposed to answer the question “What can New York learn from Hong Kong?” Thomas Ho, property director of Hong Kong’s transit authority, the MTR Corporation, showed off some of his organization’s impressive developments, such as the International Finance Centre, a hub with ­offices, shopping, and a hotel, with the airport express train stopping below; and Tung Chung, a new town, near the airport, with a projected population of 250,000. Our own transit officials, seated on the dais as respondents, appeared to grow smaller as the afternoon progressed.

The next day, however, the conference took on a different tone. One after another, Hong Kong civic leaders got up and bemoaned the fact that the “intangibles”—the city’s wonderfully rich street life—were never factored into their government’s development decisions. Peter Cookson Smith, a local city planner, sounded very much like Jane Jacobs when he suggested that the “value of neighborhoods of special character” was not understood in his city. He added, “We need in many ways to follow some of the examples of New York.”

Of course, what Dubai, Shanghai, and Hong Kong have in common is a top-down approach to development. Dubai has a hereditary ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The United Arab Emirates held its first ever elections in 2006, but they’re only open to a tiny fraction of the population. The vast majority of Dubai’s residents are foreigners: they drive the economy but don’t have the rights or responsibilities of citizens. (Con­struction workers, in particular, recruited from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are so poorly paid and harshly treated that it’s as if they’ve died and gone to hell.) In the West, we envy China’s ability to build on a monumental scale—the Bei­jing airport! The Bird’s Nest! A subway system quadrupled in size in five years!—and completely change the face of its cities, but residents don’t seem to have a role to play in how their cities are remade, aside from getting out of the way. In Hong Kong, public participation is carefully rationed, and recent protests over the demolition of beloved landmarks—such as the Central Star Ferry Pier and the Queen’s Pier—are a subset of a larger movement advocating open government.

What I’ve realized is that for all the grumbling in New York about how Jane Jacobs–ism stands in the way of exciting new developments, it’s revealing to see what happens in cities where there is no Jane. Because what these people are really talking about when they complain about the Jane Jacobs mentality is democracy, the inconvenient fact that we live in a society where ordinary people can have an impact on the political process. My visits to Asia have taught me that there’s a significant upside to routine NIMBYism, the insufferable ­community-board dramas, the narrow-minded neighborhood crusades, and our Byzantine urban-land-use review process. Democracy may be slow, messy, and dysfunctional, but it sure beats the alternative.

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